Sunday, February 6, 2011

Gaynor Escapes 'Small Town'

Janet Gaynor is so darned adorable, and I mean that in the best of ways.

I can enjoy pretty much any film she’s in, whether it’s truly great like “Sunrise” or one of her box office hits, like the melodramatic romance “Seventh Heaven.” During the early 1930s, Gaynor was a top box office star, and her wholesome charm was often paired with Charles Farrell. In fact, in 1934, she was the top star in the country.

However, outside of her distinction as the first Best Actress Oscar winner, not many people are familiar with her work. And that includes myself, as I’d only seen five of her films until recently when I took in “Small Town Girl.” This lightweight 1936 romance features Gaynor in the title role as Kay Brannan, who’s tired of the drab life she leads in her East Coast hometown. She works day in and day out for her grocer brother George (Andy Devine); she lives at home with her loving parents, who accept their small-town existence with ease; and she dates a local boy, Elmer (James Stewart), who’s also perfectly content with his predictable existence.

When traffic for the annual Harvard/Yale football game is rerouted through her town, Kay dreams of joining the crowds and escaping her routine boredom. Later that night, while Kay takes a walk alone, lost in her daydreams, Bob (Robert Taylor) pulls over and asks for directions. With a twinkle in his eye, he invites her to show him the way; with yearning in her heart, she willingly jumps into his car to do so.

Yes, the beginning of a romance in 1936 would be the beginning of a horror film in 2011.

Anyway, the result is dinner with his friends, too much liquor and a late-night trip to the justice of the peace. The next morning, they awake in his car and discover they are married, shocked by the actions they don’t remember. It turns out Bob is a doctor and his family comes from high society, and he now believes Kay tricked him into marriage for his money.

What affection existed between the two is now gone, yet they scheme to stay married to save the family’s honor. After an appropriate time, they will divorce. But first comes the pretend honeymoon, in which the two engage in typical romantic comedy shenanigans, where they slam doors and talk about how much they despise one another.

The roadmap for “Small Town Girl” is easy to follow, and it’s clear where this trip will lead. Much like Kay bored with the predictability of life, I was disappointed in the predictability of this story. The arranged honeymoon is tiring because we’ve seen so many films with bickering couples who in reality are truly in love. It just takes the characters longer than the audience to figure it out. Perhaps this is a “Purple Rose of Cairo” moment when Kay and Bob can turn to the audience and take a poll. Bob’s family certainly sees what’s happening almost immediately, and they take an instant liking to Kay.

Then there’s the typical “other woman” who Bob was seeing before the quickie marriage occurred. She’s a shrew, just as you would expect.

And the ending comes so quickly that you wonder if you missed part of the story.

What helps make the film work is Gaynor’s charm. I swear she could recite the alphabet and glow while doing so. Taylor, at the beginning of a long career at MGM, is handsome and equally charming. The two make a strong pair, even if the plot doesn’t give them something livelier to do.

The director, believe it or not, is William Wellman. The next year, Wellman would guide Gaynor through her best late-career performance in “A Star Is Born.” The supporting cast includes an eighth-billed Stewart at the beginning of his storied career as Kay’s boring yet endearing boyfriend. Ironically enough, Stewart would soon star in the talking remake of “Seventh Heaven,” Gaynor’s silent blockbuster that helped earn her an Oscar.

Despite the shortcomings “Small Town Girl,” it’s enjoyable enough. If anything, it only makes me want to see more of Gaynor on film. With luck you’ll see me reviewing more of her movies in the future.


  1. I love her in Three Loves has Nancy with Robert Montgomery and Franchot Tone. She is super adorable in it as well!

  2. I'll have to check that one out. Thank you for the recommendation!

  3. I feel the same way about Janet as you do.
    Although I loved her in "Street Angel" I never pass up one of her films when it's on again.

    A great post as usual CFB!

  4. Thank you, Page. I see "Street Angel" is giong to be on TCM next week, so I'm finally going to catch it.

  5. I can say without a doubt that, much as I adore James Stewart, that picture of Robert Taylor holding Janet and looking down at her with either anger or desire (or both?) made my heart go pitter-pat! I have not seen this one, but I do like Janet. She and Frederic March were just unforgettable in A Star is Born.

    I got to meet James Stewart when I was 14 and he was grand marshall of the Indy 500 Race parade. He was all dressed up in his Air Force uniform and looked about 10 feet tall. He was standing apart from everybody for a moment, and I took my courage in my hands and went up to say hello. But I was 14, and I couldn't get a word out. I just looked up at him like the madly in love schoolgirl that I was. He was so sweet. He leaned down and took my hand with both of his, and said "Indianapolis has the prettiest girls." What a doll -- I'll never forget that.

  6. What a great story! That is amazing you got to meet James Stewart, who is one of my all-time favorites. And what a wonderful thing to say ... I can hear his voice in my mind looking down at you.

    Robert Taylor is my icon photo right now, because of seeing him in this movie. I never really thought much of him, but he was undeniably handsome at this age. And I too love Janet and Fredric March in A Star Is Born.